This is the most underrated capital city in Europe

Croatia’s capital, Zagreb deserves more limelight…

Elegant stone-tiled mansions and newer apartments stand shoulder-to-shoulder in harmony along broad tree-lined avenues and inviting green spaces. Its understated elegance, relaxed pace and easy cafe culture grows on you unobtrusively. This is a lovely city recreating itself, carving out a new identity, while preserving the richness of its past. Zagreb may be underrated, but you will regret skipping it. Here are my firm recommendations on the two atmospheric neighbourhoods to concentrate your energies on, while visiting Croatia’s capital.

Donji Grad: Quintessential European grace

Viennese architect Hermann Bollé’s 19th-century creations are the eye-candy of the Lower Town (Donji Grad). Start with the grand Marshal Tito Square, where an imposing equestrian statue of King Tomislav, the first medieval Croatian king, graces the area. Feast on the sight of exquisite National Theater and the Art Pavilion, an art gallery housed in a fabulous long building with an inviting, sunny yellow façade, and a park surrounded by crunchy gravely paths. Don’t miss the beautiful neo-classical Zagreb railway station. A throwback to the times when it used to be a stopover for the intriguing Orient Express (king of trains and train of kings) that chugged from London to Istanbul. Then there’s ‘The Fountain of Life’ bronze fountain, a work of art by famed Croatian scupltor, Ivan Meštrović, Rodin’s favourite disciple. And countless fascinating neo-Classical and neo-Renaissance buildings converted into luxury hotels.

 

 

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Museums at every corner, huge parks, wide avenues and carefully installed fountains and sculptures lead to the main square, Ban Josip Jelacic, within 20 minutes. With its central equestrian statue and the famous Manduševac fountain (an original spring), this heart of the city is accompanied by all the usual suspects…grand buildings converted into plush offices and luxury stores, pigeons flocking for seed, people moving about their daily business, locals chatting over coffee in the outdoor cafes and shoppers armed with goodies. Modern blue trams glide along Ilica, the crowded artery of the old town. A hum of pleasant tranquility!

 

 

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Blend in. Sample your first Croatian street food off a tiny stall…fritule, small doughnut balls sprinkled with icing sugar or cinnamon, served on thin, long sticks…sweet, crunchy, with a hint of orange zest and brandy. Linger among the bustling crowds in the lively Cvjetni Square (Flower Square), where open-air cafes and modern shopping plazas contrast sharply with the sombre Serbian Orthodox Church looming large. Tune into all the Dalmatian small-talk around you…the bus stop, ticket counter, bank queues, roasted chestnut vendors and sunny cafés. This is one chitty-chatty nation!

 

 

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Follow the human stream into Zagreb’s most well known party-place…the enchanting Tkalčićeva, a long street lined with pretty, old, tiny houses with pastel colored facades, slanting roofs, and chimneys, alternating with small galleries, shops selling bric-a-brac, lovely boutiques, cafes, bars, and more cafes, and more bars. Peek into the criss-cross streets. Explore the hidden nooks. And when your legs protest, sink into the couch of a street-facing café that beckons seductively. Time stands still as the world walks by.

 

 

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Today’s Tkalčićeva is a charming street known for its night life, where locals and tourists mingle, but it was once the border between the two rival cities, separated by Zagreb’s two hills, Gradec and Kaptol and is said to have been witness to many bloody battle. Contemplate this evolution from blood baths to beer bars, and suddenly, an ordinary coffee break will be a moment to be treasured forever!

 

 

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Close by, discover delights at the Dolac market, an 80-year old treasure trove for home-made foodstuffs, fresh fish and meat, cheese and cream, fruit and vegetables. Browse around in the stalls in the open space filled with rows, and rows of red umbrellas. Select pretty, handmade Croatian souvenirs or lay your hands on hot favourites like lavender and lace!

 

 

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And finally, head to the wide-open Kaptol square, where the twin-spired Gothic Zagreb Cathedral stands unrestricted, showered with its chosen place in the sun. A grand, somewhat unusual medieval fortress-cathedral, where delicacy of lacy ornamentation contrasts with sturdiness of a towered defensive wall. Inside, thin strips of windows accentuate the structure’s height, a rustic brown-yellow chequered tile floor creates an unusual cheerfulness, and a blue-grey star-spangled ceiling adds an element of grace. The city’s most important landmark is the perfect spot to end a fulfilling day.

 

 

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Gornji Grad: Quaint and timeless

Travel in Zagreb’s oldest public transport carriage, the 100-year old funicular, from the 5.66 km long shopping street of Ilica to the old Upper Town (Gornji Grad). But not before stopping for fabulous ice cream and home-made pastries at the vintage confectionary, Vincek (circa 1977). Within minutes, you’re on the cobbled streets of Gornji Grad, facing the medieval Lotrščak Tower, where a resounding cannon is fired everyday at noon, followed by the adjusting of Zagreb’s clocks and ringing of church bells. A time-keeper tradition that goes back to ancient times, when the tower bell announced the closing of the city’s gates at night.

You will be irresistibly drawn to the beautifully serene, green Strossmayer Promenade on the left, which stretches all along the ramparts. Priceless views of the Lower Town below, canopies of towering chestnut trees, fiery red-gold carpets of autumn’s falling leaves, antique ornate lamps for after sun-down and inviting benches under these tall trees. Join the artists, students, joggers, lovers and locals taking a newspaper break. Another slice of Zagreb life.

 

 

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Listen to your own footsteps as you walk the empty, spotless, cobbled streets. Hang on till dark to witness the gas oil street lamps being lit as a ritual. A random vehicle or two zips past, otherwise all is quiet among the pretty rows of small houses (they only look newly built). In the middle of the smallish, open square, is a remarkably styled centrepiece. The red-blue tiled St Marks Church, with the coats of arms of Zagreb and the Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia. Circle it and get a sense of how modestly sized the building is. Only the tall bell tower, with tiny slit windows at four levels gives away the secret. The baroque St. Catherine’s Church beside it…now that’s a different story.

 

 

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Within a stone’s throw of the church are the Parliament and government buildings. Surprisingly thin security…so approachable! If it weren’t for the several ‘Men in Black’ poised outside and the one-off important-looking passenger stepping in and out of the shiny black car, it would be just another office building. No terrorist or paparazzi threat here, obviously.

If offbeat is your cup of tea, explore the Museum of Broken Relationships, for a quirky, even bizarre collection of personal objects donated by ex-lovers from all over the world, including articles of clothing, photos and reminders of unpleasant memories. Pick up fun souvenirs like memory erasers and plaster to mend broken hearts. For the more conventional at heart, there are other museums around, including the Natural History Museum, the Croatian Museum of Native Art and the Mestrovic Gallery (home and permanent gallery of the famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic). A whole afternoon well taken care of. 

 

 

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And when you’ve soaked it all in, reach for the ramparts to indulge in spectacular views of the red-roof houses in the city below. The towering twin-steepled cathedral clearly hogs the limelight. Shades of orange, rust, ochre, brown sharpen the blueness of the cloudy blue sky. Classic. Eternal. Unforgettable. Zagreb. The most underrated capital city in Europe, isn’t it?

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Zagreb: Europe's most underrated capital city

 

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89 thoughts on “This is the most underrated capital city in Europe

  1. Zagreb is a really intriguing city for me. My introduction to this charming city was through the world of books. “The Lady from Zagreb”, a Bernie Gunther novel from Philip Kerr is set here. Would love to visit this city in the world of reality some day. In the interim enjoyed a virtual tour of the place through your post.

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  2. Going to Zagreb next month… already nice first impression with this blogpost:)! But ‘most’ underrated city… is for all people different:). I can name a lot of most underrated cities: Vilnius,Skopje, Ljubljana,Belgrade,Coimbra… :)? Have a nice weekend:)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I totally agree with you it is so underrated compare to many other cities and I am not sure why as it’s a great city to explore. We loved it especially walking around in Kaptol and the night life in Tkalčićeva. We also found it so much cheaper than many other capital cities in Europe and after spending a week on the Dalmatian Coast, Zagreb felt really cheap. We loved the coffee culture too. Having a coffee in Flower Sq and watching the world go by was fabulous! We’d love to go back soon.

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  4. Oh wonderful, yes this is firmly on my list. I love produce markets so Dolac definitely appeals and of course I must try those fritule doughnuts – orange zest and brandy, hellooo! And the Museum of Broken Relationships is one which sounds quirky and unusual!!

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  5. Excellent post! I felt I was right there beside you as you described “gravelly paths” or fritules, the architecture and the views. And your photo slide shows were the perfect way to see Zagreb on your engaging tour.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. We’ve been thinking about where to visit in Europe this autumn, somewhere different and not so popular but still interesting. This could be the place.

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  7. I agree, Zagreb is a lovely town. Donji Grad really is very charming. And I did like the railway station building. That was actually the first thing I saw when I went for the first time, since I came by train from Belgrade, Serbia. Nice, cozy town, not that big, but a real capitol.
    So glad you’ve enjoyed it. 🙂

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  8. I totally agree that Zagreb is underrated and deserves more tourism – it was one of the highlights of my time in Croatia. So much incredible neo-classical and medieval architecture, grand buildings, and incredible museums with rich culture. Kaptol square and the Cathedral were my favorite 🙂

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  9. Zagreb is definitely an underrated city that deserves more attention. However, I will be happy when I visit it to not be killed by the tourist mass like in other cities!

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  10. I have to say that so far I haven’t been able to find the real charm of Zagreb. Been there twice (for two days) and I still feel like it’s missing something (for me). But of course, I didn’t explore it as much as you seem to have done, so I should give it another try.

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  11. Croatia is a beautiful country and it’s great that you think it is under rated. I think there are many places and capitals in Europe like this. Croatia and Slovenia have a real thing for funiculars and I think they do them really well. Loved the journey through Zagreb with you and know that when I get back to Croatia I will visit here.

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  12. Loved these sights. Not that I was not aware of Zagreb but I see that there is far more to it than what I knew. It almost feels like other major cities such as Paris or Vienna in terms of artistic heritage and riches. Croatia is surely the next big thing on the tourist map.

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  13. You clearly loved the place, and it seemed to have brought out the adjectives and bons mots in your descriptive prose. Lavender and lace, indeed. I like your idea at the start of presenting the city through selected neighborhoods, thereby giving people targets when they actually visit. And I want to go to the Museum of Broken Relationships, though it probably requires a stiff drink afterwards to cry into. Cheers.

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  14. Hungary and Croatia are in my list for 2018. I hope I’ll make it happen! Esp after you say its the most under rated city, I really have to go there! The street food definitely looks yummm… Gornji Grad is just breathtaking! Museum of Broken Relationships??? That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard!!!

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  15. Zagreb looks stunning and unfortunately we only passed through on the way to Plitvice lakes and Dubrovnik last year! We will definitely have to go back one day and spent more time there!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Zagreb is so beautiful!! I feel Croatia in general is very underrated. Had it not been for Game of Thrones, the little limelight that Dubrovnic is getting these days, even that would not have been possible. Loved this virtual tour through your post 😀

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  17. I love going to underrated places! Actually Croatia in general has been on top of my list for a couple of years. That market is exactly the kind of thing I would love. Also the doughnut balls sound tasty! I see the potential here and hope to visit soon!

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  18. Honestly I will say that I was not aware of Zagreb much and even I don’t remember ever it getting my attention on any matter. But now through your article it drew my attention. This certainly looks very beautiful and can definitely be considered as a place to visit in Europe. Your amazing pictures are even making it more intriguing. Glad that you got to cover not so known destination which turned out to be such an amazing place.

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  19. Looks like a cute place! So many underrated cities in Europe – especially in Eastern and Central Europe (for me, Dresden, Krakow and Budapest are some examples). These days I read a lot of blogs and articles about Zagreb though – I think the tourists will be flocking in soon!

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  20. I’ve only been to Split but, had a layover in Zagreb. Croatia is such a beautiful country – I feel like everyone forgets about Croatia. I cant wait to go back and get to know it better. It might be the next big travel region!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I like that you seem to like cities! I have been to some (not Zagreb) and I kind of liked them but it always pulls me out to the countryside. I like getting to know cities before actually visiting so I can decide if it is my kind of place. I liked that one 🙂 Thank you for the post!

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  22. I personally liked this place and found it really interesting. Wow! The museum of the broken relationship – it is a unique concept and it has really fascinated me. The food too looks good and the Dolac market is captivating. I must say from your pictures, got the virtual tour of the place. Adding this to my list. Thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Yehhh, that is the really wonderful city in Europe. This city looking very neat and Cline. I really like their road. I do not go there but I listen many time this city name. That really wonderful city.There all picture is looking awesome. I enjoy your post. Thanks for sharing your post.

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